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Remembering the first ‘photo’ of a black hole

Black holes are so outlandish that the scientists who first thought them up figured they couldn’t possibly exist in reality. They form from massive, collapsed stars and are so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, including light. Black holes mess with spacetime so badly that scientists have long wondered: How do these things look, exactly? We may be on the cusp of seeing one thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope, but back in 1979, Jean-Pierre Luminet created the first “image” using nothing but an early computer, lots of math and India ink.

The problem with imaging a black hole is that, by definition, they don’t emit light or radiation. Luckily, large black holes are usually next to other stars and suck away their matter, something astronomers can see. “As [gases from stars] fall towards the black hole, it becomes hotter and hotter and begins to emit radiation. This is a good source of light: the accretion rings shine and illuminate the central black hole,” writes Luminet in his e-Luminesciences blog.

The distinguishing feature of a black hole is its “event horizon” boundary, the point of no return for matter and light. At its periphery, materials sucked in from adjacent stars form an “accretion disk,” famously depicted in Interstellar (below) as two bright, perpendicular disks. That’s just an illusion, though — there’s only one disk at the equator, but the light is bent upward by the black hole’s extreme gravity (via gravitation lensing).

Luminet’s image depicts two other important phenomena not seen in Interstellar. One is the fact that the energy and light are stronger near the edge of a black hole and weaker farther out. Another is the Doppler and Einstein effects caused by the accretion disk’s rotation, which would make light appear to be brighter on one side, depending on the spin direction. In Luminet’s image, the accretion disk spins counter-clockwise, so its light approaches the viewer on the left and recedes on the right, making the left-hand side look brighter.

All that causes the black hole to be much brighter in the center and left, as depicted in Luminet’s image, but not on the “Gargantua” black hole created by Interstellar‘s effects team. “A realistic image must show a strong asymmetry of the disk’s brightness, so that one side is far brighter and the other is far dimmer,” he says. (Interstellar’s black hole expert Kip Thorne was very aware of that, but director Christopher Nolan left it out so as not to confuse the audience.)

Luminet calculated all of that back in 1979 using the IBM 7040 mainframe, an early transistor computer with punch card inputs. The machine generated isolines for his image that were “directly translatable as smooth curves using the drawing software available at the time,”

To create the final image though, he relied on his other passion: art. Using numerical data from the computer, he drew directly on negative image paper with black India ink, placing dots more densely where the simulation showed more light. “Next, I took the negative of my negative to get the positive, the black points becoming white and the white background becoming black.”

The result is an image that still holds up and is closer to reality than the CGI done by Interstellar’s whiz kids. What’s more, subsequent computer simulations created by NASA Goddard and others still show the same defining elements — a thin “photon ring” at the center, Doppler and Einstin-shifted light and a double accretion disk caused by gravitational lensing. Not bad for someone with just punch cards and India ink.


AI can predict heart attacks more accurately than doctors

An estimated 20 million people die each year due to cardiovascular disease. Luckily, a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK have developed a machine-learning algorithm that can predict your likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke as well as any doctor.

The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) has developed a series of guidelines for estimating a patient’s cardiovascular risk which is based on eight factors including age, cholesterol level and blood pressure. On average, this system correctly guesses a person’s risk at a rate of 72.8 percent.

That’s pretty accurate but Stephen Weng and his team set about to make it better. They built four computer learning algorithms, then fed them data from 378,256 patients in the United Kingdom. The systems first used around 295,000 records to generate their internal predictive models. Then they used the remaining records to test and refine them. The algorithms results significantly outperformed the AAA/AHA guidelines, ranging from 74.5 to 76.4 percent accuracy. The neural network algorithm tested highest, beating the existing guidelines by 7.6 percent while raising 1.6 percent fewer false alarms.

Out of the 83,000 patient set of test records, this system could have saved 355 extra lives. Interestingly, the AI systems identified a number of risk factors and predictors not covered in the existing guidelines, like severe mental illness and the consumption of oral corticosteroids. “There’s a lot of interaction in biological systems,” Weng told Science. “That’s the reality of the human body. What computer science allows us to do is to explore those associations.”

Articles Featured/Opinions

Alphabet’s Verily details its research-focused health watch

Google has made a smartwatch, but not the kind you might expect. Verily, the health organisation owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has (finally) announced its ‘Study Watch’ for medical research purposes. It doesn’t run Android Wear, nor does it help you manage the notifications on your phone. Instead, it passively captures health data “critical to the success of continuous care platforms and clinical research,” including heart rate, electrodermal activity (the skin’s ability to conduct electricity) and body movement. It can also produce an ECG, a recording of the heart’s electrical activity, which can sometimes reveal heart problems.

The Study Watch has a circular e-ink display which displays the date, time, and some basic instructions for the wearer. “No other information is provided back to the user,” Verily says in a blog post. The simple interface is designed to maximise performance; the wearable can last a week on a single charge, and comes with “a powerful processor” to run important algorithms. There are no apps, or any other functionality normally associated with smartwatches. That means it can focus on capturing and storing raw data that will be useful for medical professionals.

“While numerous wearables exist in the market, we have a specific need outside of these offerings,” Verily adds. The team hopes the watch will be deployed in large research groups and prove useful as an always-on, continuous health tracking tool. Initially, it will be used in a few smaller studies including the “Personalized Parkinson’s Project,” a multi-year project led by the ParkinsonNet, Radboud University and the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Normally, Parkinson’s patients would have their heart rate variability measured in a hospital — now, the same tests can be run (in theory) anywhere, any time.

The health-focused Study Watch will also play a role in Verily’s “Baseline” study, which aims to track 10,000 participants over five years. The results will, the company hopes, create a ‘baseline’ of health data that can be used to better understand ageing and disease. It’s one of many ambitious Verily projects which include glucose-tracking contact lenses, nanoparticle pillsfor detecting cancer and heart attacks, and bioelectronic medicines. The Study Watch does, by comparison, sound like a more realistic endeavour, if only because Apple and Nokia which now owns Withings  are making similar inroads with their respective smartwatch and health platforms.


Komodo Dragons may hold the key to fighting infections

Komodo Dragon blood could save your life. Curious scientists — are there any other kind? — recently identified a peptide in the Dragon plasma that might serve as an antibiotic. Now, a bite from a Komodo Dragon is lethal not from venom, but from bacteria in the reptile’s saliva, and the Dragons don’t kill each other when they get into tussles the way they do hunting prey, which suggests an immunity. So the researchers, inspired by previous work done with alligators and crocodiles, made a synthetic version of a peptide (a chain of amino acids) found in Dragon’s plasma, VK25.

The hope is to use the lab-designed peptide, DRGN-1, as a topical antibiotic. “DRGN-1 exhibited promising antimicrobial and anti-biofilm properties,” the paper reads. “Moreover, the DRGN-1 peptide significantly promoted wound healing in vitro and in vivo, in both uninfected and mixed biofilm infected wounds.”

In their experiments, the scientists saw that DRGN-1-treated sores experienced “accelerated skin wound closure and healing.” What’s more, it culled the amount of bacteria in the wounds of infected mice. We’re likely to hear a lot more about DRGN-1 in the future as the recent experiments only tested a third of the pathogens known to infect wounds.

It’s something I’m personally fully in support of. I mean, aside from going to Finland and burning down a church, healing yourself with a synthetic Komodo Dragon blood derivative is about the most metal thing you can do.

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Astronomers may have taken the first photo of a black hole

The Event Horizon Telescope project’s astronomers can now breathe a sigh of relief. They finally managed to observe Sagittarius A* for five sleepless nights after switching on the array on April 4th. In other words, the team might have taken the first picture of a black hole ever. There were nights when they had to stop their observations due to bad weather or something going wrong with their system, but they ultimately wrapped up on April 11th, 11:22 AM ET.

The Event Horizon Telescope is an array of powerful radio observatories around the world. When connected, they turn into one virtual telescope as big as the planet with a diameter of 6,200 miles. The scientists pointed those powerful radio telescopes to two tiny points in the sky: one of them is Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole in the center of our own galaxy, while the other is the black hole in the center of a nearby galaxy called M87.

Team member Heino Falcke from Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, said “even if the first images are still crappy and washed out, [they] can already test for the first time some basic predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity in the extreme environment of a black hole.” The photo “will turn black holes from some mythical object to something concrete that we can study.”

Despite successfully collecting data the past few days, the team will have to spend the next months wondering if they were actually able to snap the first photo of a black hole. See, each of the eight participating observatories produced around 500TB of data divided into 1,024 hard drives. The locations aren’t equipped to process them locally, so jets will fly them to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. Both labs have supercomputers that can crunch a massive amount of data. It could still take until early 2018 before we see the results, though, since the hard drives from the South Pole can’t be flown out until the end of October.

That’s a lot of work for something that might not bear fruit. Still, the team remains optimistic. This is the first time the South Pole telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (a group of 66 radio dishes in Chile) are used to observe the black holes, after all. Atacama alone increases the array’s power ten-fold, and power is what the telescope needs to be able to observe something so far away.

So, what kind of image should you expect to see? Probably nothing like the colorful artist rendition above. Based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the photo will show a crescent of light emitted by gas and dust in the accretion disk surrounding a black circle. If it shows something else, then we’ll bet millions of scientists around the globe will be very, very busy in the future.


Saturn and Jupiter’s moon burps bode well for distant life

Scientists recently took a closer look at data over a decade old and concluded that two moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter might have environments that foster life. During an October 2015 flyby of the ringed planet’s moon Enceladus, the probe Cassini was hit by gaseous plume, which was likely a hydrothermal vent breaking through the iced surface. Scientists theorize that the spray is evidence of chemical energy for life to feed on. Thanks to sporadic evidence of plumes on Jupiter’s moon Europa, NASA has announced that two locations in the solar system might support living organisms.

The Enceladus plume Cassini flew through had traces of hydrogen, according to a paper appearing in the journal Science written by the probe’s team. The scientists believe the gas is likely produced by a chemical reaction involving hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the moon’s ocean. Earth has some of these on its sea floors, where hydrogen combined with carbon dioxide produces methane in a process called “methanogenesis,” which is theorized to be a core component for microbial life on our planet.

To be clear, scientists haven’t discovered evidence of organisms on Enceladus, but they encouraged by the processes producing chemical energy, which could feed life. If they end up finding any, it likely wouldn’t resemble Earth’s since it would generate from a different chemical environment, the scientists said during today’s stream announcing the findings. Any life, even bacteria, would be a welcome find. But similar plumes have erupted less frequently on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a similar icy shell to Enceladus, presenting potentially correlating life-fostering conditions.

Scientists at the Goddard Space Center compared ultraviolet photos the Hubble space telescope took of Europa in 2014, when it first saw the gaseous spray emanating from the moon, and found it again in a 2016 picture. While it was two incidents captured out of twelve total photos taken of the plume’s location, which could be evidence of an unknown instrumental flaw, that’s enough evidence to keep looking. And the potential for hydrothermal similarities to Enceladus is supported by thermal imaging captured during a flyby of Europa by the Galileo probe over 15 years ago, which saw heat activity right below the plume location.

Cassini will plunge into Saturn on September 15th in a spectacular “Grand Finale, so there’s little opportunity for it to capture more photos of Enceladus. But the Europa Clipper Mission coming in the 2020s will pull off a flyby of Europa on the way to its main mission surveying Jupiter. Its thermal imaging will take a closer look at the same hotspots Galileo captured in photos over 15 years ago, along with a few extras like ultraviolet sensors to capture more specific data. Now that they know where to look and what they’re looking for, the upcoming mission will put an intense lens at one of the first areas in our solar system that might contain life.




The Human Upgrade

Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death


For centuries, explorers have searched the world for the fountain of youth. Today’s billionaires believe they can create it, using technology and data.”

The average American can expect to live for about 80 years. But that may change as scientists develop new ways to prolong human life. In this game, you will have access to seven promising tools.


Scientists once believed that brain neurons dying from injury or disease were gone forever. But in recent years they have been experimenting with replacing those with new neurons derived from neural stem cells — bringing new hope to patients with Parkinson’s and other nervous system diseases.


Two teams of researchers have shown that taking blood from young mice and putting it in old mice rejuvenated old muscles and brains. Scientists believe this could lead to treatments for age-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease.


Doctors remove a postage-stamp-size piece of healthy skin from a patient and use an enzyme to dissolve the structures holding the skin cells together. With added growth factors, the mixture is sprayed onto the burn victim. The technology is currently being tested on wounded soldiers.


Human cells harvested from a patient’s body would be cultured into a sort of biological ink to be fed into a 3-D printer programmed to arrange the cells into a new liver, kidney or other organ. Fresh organs would be kept in bioreactors until they matured.


A CT scan is used to build a computer model of a broken or deformed bone. Isolated from a fat sample, a patient’s own stem cells are grown on a scaffold to precisely fit the defect being treated. The process is currently being tested on pigs.


Scientists are trying to find a way to attack aging itself. Some groups are targeting senescent cells, which have stopped dividing and accumulate as someone ages. Others are looking at telomeres, which are specialized structures at the tips of chromosomes that get worn down as we age. When researchers re-lengthen them in aged mice, the old rodents begin to act young again.